At Compton Centennial, chaos turns into cheers
The Compton Centennial players giddily break the huddle and jog up to the line of scrimmage, the final seconds of the clock ticking, their first victory awaiting, a 55-0 decision over Los Angeles Douglass nearly complete.
“Take a knee!” Coach Jimmy Nolan says in a common gesture of sportsmanship.
What? The kids look over to the sideline and shrug. Some of them have never heard such an instruction. Some of them have never played in a winning game.
Eight of the 11 players immediately take a knee.
“No, no, just the quarterback!” Nolan says, howling at the innocence, reveling in the wonder.
Yeah, they won. Nearly two months after beginning practice amid the chaos of an idealistic coach attacking institutional despair, the Compton Centennial Apaches finally triumphed last week, three games into a season that almost didn’t get started.
His players hug and bump chests and laugh. They leave Jackie Robinson Stadium much slower than they arrived, which was only eight minutes before the start of the 7 p.m. game because their driver was more than two hours late.
They had to sprint from the bus to the field. Nolan could not attend to their pregame warm-ups because he had to tape ankles. There was no water for most of the first quarter because nobody on the team had time to fill up the bottles.
“This is a first step,” shouts Nolan, a dousing of ice in his hair, and, while a bit awkward and odd, it is a glorious step indeed.
Several weeks ago on these pages, I chronicled the story of Nolan and his crazy dream, the tales of a former football coach at affluent Laguna Beach High who became the volunteer head coach for a rebuilding Centennial program in the heart of the inner-city.
While Nolan’s obstacles were similar to those faced by others in economically depressed areas, he offered me an unvarnished glimpse through the wide eyes of a newcomer.
He was holding practices without a proper locker room, without a football office, without even a key to the facility. There was no bench on the field, there was police tape around a burned section of bleachers, and his players used an end zone shrub as a makeshift bathroom because there were no accessible facilities nearby. His team lacked so many training camp basics — water, nutritional lunches, cleats — that Nolan sent out two mass e-mailings asking for help.
It was these e-mails that led to my original story. That story led to a flood of donations, eventually allowing Nolan to purchase everything from important hip pads to home jerseys. Several volunteers from distant towns brought in cases of Gatorade and boxes of sandwiches and plenty of cheers. The school also listened, the bleachers being fixed and Nolan being given a bungalow office for himself and his team.
It seemed like a journey worth following, so I attended the opener against larger Compton High three weeks ago, watching the Apaches beaten, 27-14, by a strong Compton team and some strange refereeing. The problems continued on the field in the team’s second game, a 34-27 loss to Lynwood that featured six turnovers and much bickering.
The next day, worried that his team didn’t have a common mission, Nolan summoned them to the bungalow, dimmed the lights and asked the kids to stand up and talk about themselves.
What happened next brought the team together with a bond that was both tough and tearful.
There was one player who admitted he was homeless and living in a friend’s garage. One player’s family was in the process of being evicted from their apartment. Another player was fighting to keep his younger sister out of gangs. Every player who spoke had one thing in common — they all felt like the Compton Centennial football team was the only stable and loving environment in their lives.
Nolan told his coaches that he felt his team change that day. Sure enough, less than a week later, last Thursday night, they ran over Douglass with a single purpose, Dwaine Jackson sprinting and Tray Martin soaring and Wiley Hamilton knocking down passes and knocking out yards.
And now everyone is starting to take notice.
“In the beginning, Coach Nolan had a tough time getting accepted, but he’s done a wonderful job of teaching these kids to be young men,” said Wesley Perkins Sr., whose son Wesley plays several positions. “Everyone knew it would be a battle, but he’s handled it well.”
As part of managing the situation, Nolan can no longer speak to me, having been silenced by school administrators as punishment for what they deemed an unnecessarily negative original article. I have tried to contact Principal Sonja Bankston-Cullen for an explanation, but she has not returned my calls.
No matter. There are many witnesses willing to share the powerful tale, and I’ll keep listening. The coach and the kids and the community have helped turned the dark story into a bright one, every new step a good one.
Now the only thing they need is hot water. It turns out, the locker room doesn’t have any, so the kids must shower at home.
The Apaches’ next game is Friday, when they play host to Morningside at 5 p.m. Check it out. Bring your wildest hopes, your nuttiest ideas, your loudest cheers. And bring a plumber.